Photo of the month

Glenn races against the clock and gathering darkness to unload an order of lumber from a Home Depot rental truck on Oct. 5. The lumber was part of our vacation project to build a new backyard pergola. With assistance from Roni and Ben, we were able to get the unloading done within the 75 minutes allotted in the rental contract. Photo by Ben.

October 2010

One of the sure signs that fall has arrived is the blooming of our sage plant. The velvety purple blossoms always attract the local hummingbirds. Photo by Glenn.

A bunch of chenin grapes ripens on the vine in our backyard. They are at their peak for harvesting by us or the local jays and ground squirrels. Photo by Glenn.

We took an afternoon walk on the Big Break Regional Trail on Sept. 27 to check out progress on construction of the Delta Science Center. Roni appears to have found something to photograph. Photo by Glenn.

...And here's what Roni is photographing. One of the resident Delta spiders. Photo by Glenn.

...The back side. What a cutie. He's about lifesize in this picture. Photo by Glenn.

It's Sept. 25, and this is the last time you will get to see our spa and accompanying gazebo in one piece. After 21 years it's time to go. Photo by Glenn.

Dismantling of the spa is underway. There are hoses embedded in insulation foam everywhere. It's like open heart surgery with a reciprocating saw. Photo by Glenn.

Ben is surrounded by a pile of insulation foam as he chips away at the spa. Photo by Glenn.

Roni surveys the progress a couple of days into our spa demolition project. She is eager to get all this junk off the patio. Photo by Glenn.

With most of its guts removed, the spa is just light enough to move across the patio. Glenn and Roni work together to accomplish the feat on Oct. 4. Photo by Ben.

Another look at the spa after its move. It is amazing that it didn't topple over. Photo by Glenn.

Dismantling the spa resulted in a lot of additional junk that had to be stored in our side yard. Ben tries to tidy things up a bit by moving an old fence board out of the way. Photo by Glenn.

Twenty-four sacks filled with foam pieces from the spa pile up in the garden until we can figure out how best to get rid of them. Photo by Glenn.

With the gazebo gone, there is temporarily nowhere for the wisteria to climb. Glenn and Roni take the opportunity to untangle some of the vines. Photo by Ben.

It's Oct. 5, and here is the truckload of lumber we brought home from Home Depot to use in construction of our new pergola. A crape myrtle tree we purchased from Lowe's sits atop the boards. Photo by Ben.

And here's the front of the truck. The 20-foot boards didn't quite fit in the tailgate, so the guys at Home Depot laid them across the cab. Photo by Roni.

Roni gets to work painting all 54 of the boards we bought. The spa makes a good workbench. Photo by Glenn.

Once the boards are painted and dry, Roni leans them against the house to keep them out of the way. Photo by Glenn.

By Oct. 8 most of the frame for the pergola is assembled. It is so huge that it doesn't all fit in this frame. Photo by Glenn.

Katy and Rio watch our progress curiously from the bedroom. Photo by Glenn.

By Oct. 11 the pergola is mostly done. All the slats are attached, and here you can see that we've also returned the wisteria to its home. Photo by Roni.

How weird has our weather been this year? Just ask these confused poppies, which don't realize that the growing season is March to June, not mid-October. Photo by Roni.

We're in Hood on Oct. 3 for the start of our walk along the abandoned railroad branch line. The bottom sign is pretty clear, but what does the top one mean? "DO WORK" with crossed paintbrush and paint roller. If anyone knows, we'd love to hear from you. Photo by Glenn.

This is where the old rails begin, a few yards south of Hood Franklin Road. We'll follow the line for 7 miles north. First we'll have to cross the highway, which was built right over the tracks. Photo by Glenn.

Sean pauses to pick stickers out of his shoes and socks. Most of our route was covered in weeds. Photo by Glenn.

Ben stops to take a photo beneath the shade of an oak grove. The rails through here are in pretty poor shape. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn shows the effects of sampling wild grapes, which turned his tongue a lovely shade of purple. Photo by Glenn.

There is so much beauty along the abandoned rail line. A snowy egret waits among a mass of blooming hyacinth in search of a bite to eat. Photo by Roni.

Ben and Sean horse around on a railroad trestle near the end of our walk near Freeport. Sean is standing on solid ground while the top half of his body protrudes through the ties. Photo by Glenn.

Sean stands on a broken bridge that we called the road to nowhere. We think it was once used by vehicles to cross the slough, but the road ended immediately on the opposite bank. Photo by Glenn.

And this is what you get to see if you venture over that busted bridge. This hyacinth-clogged waterway stretches as far as the eye can see. Photo by Glenn.

We always enjoy hearing from our visitors. We welcome your comments.

What we did on our summer vacation

October 22, 2010

We spent a lot of time with the hot tub this month, although not in the way you might imagine. There were no long soaks in warm, foaming jets of water. In fact, the only water we did come in contact with was considerably less pleasant than a backed-up toilet in an urban crack house.

When we moved to our Oakley home as renters in 1991, one of the things that convinced us to sign the lease was the 8-by-8-foot spa that occupied a huge concrete patio beneath a massive redwood gazebo behind the master bedroom. And for a while we got considerable use out of it. It was great to come home to at the end of a long work day, or as a place to warm up on a chilly winter night. We even had a couple of parties during which the spa was one of the favorite attractions. But with the arrival of our son Ben in 1994, the time we spent in those soothing waters became less frequent, and the maintenance routine of adding liquid chlorine and testing Ph levels got to be a hassle. The elements exacted a heavy toll on the thin lattice of the gazebo, and the unprotected wood began to sag and fall into general disrepair. We had mostly stopped using the spa by the turn of the new century, and in the years that followed we watched its gradual transformation from a treasured centerpiece in our yard to an eyesore pile of decaying wood surrounding a mosquito infested swamp.

In 2006, we tore down half of the gazebo that sheltered a redwood deck and bar so that we could add it to the large garbage bin we rented to haul away the remnants of two fences we’d replaced that winter. But we left the spa and other half of the gazebo intact because it was providing a trellis for our wisteria vine that had recently hit a growth spurt. Glenn didn’t want to get rid of the gazebo until we had an idea of what we would put in its place, and so for the next four years it sat there, its roof slowly collapsing, growing more decrepit with each passing season.

Things might have continued that way a few more years if not for last month’s visit to the Contra Costa Greek Food & Wine Festival in Concord. Before heading home after a day at the festival, we stopped at nearby Navlet’s Nursery and became inspired by how the store displayed the plants in its garden center. With a few simple cinder blocks and stepping stones arranged creatively, they turned what might have been a dull display into a lively space. We were eager to try those tricks in our own yard. But we knew they wouldn’t work without first addressing the crumbling gazebo.

Fortunately, Glenn was preparing to embark on a two-week vacation, and with no great trips planned this time, he was eager to tackle a project to keep himself occupied. He quickly came up with a sketch for a new patio pergola. But before construction could begin, first we would have to get rid of the old gazebo — and the spa.

Demolishing the spa seemed an easy enough task. We bought a reciprocating saw and planned to carve the fiberglass tub into manageable chunks that could easily be hauled to the dump. First we pulled off the spa’s insulated cover and drained out a decade’s worth of putrid water, a task that took half a day and all night. Then we removed the motor and other electrical components, slicing through rubber hoses to free them. When we’d taken out the easy stuff, we moved on to the saw and cut off the thick plastic that separated the equipment compartment from the rest of the tub. We thought it would be a simple job once we’d removed the plastic shield to pull out hoses and then cut into the tub itself.

But we hadn’t counted on the wall of expandable insulating foam we encountered. When Cal Spas manufactured our unit, they built it upside down and then sprayed foam into every possible corner. The foam is what keeps the tub water hot, but it also acts like glue to set all the inside components into place. The hundreds of feet of hoses that snaked their way from the front of the spa to its back were embedded in the stuff. And because it was resistant to most of the tools we have, we found that only a crowbar would allow us to make any sort of progress on the demolition.

We spent at least three days chipping and chopping and digging and sawing out gobs of foam, burying the back patio in the stuff. While Glenn used the saw and crowbar, Ben found that a hoe and garden trowel were his favorite tools. Roni tried to keep pace with the mess by scooping piles of foam into giant trash bags. She filled at least 24 of them before we’d chipped off enough of the foam to even consider moving the spa.

Move it? Weren’t we planning to chop it up? Well, originally, yes. We were working up the courage to do just that when another brainstorm hit us and we thought it might be useful to save the spa liner so it could be turned into a garden pond. Another project for another time, but if it ever happens it would be nice to start with a free pond liner instead of paying a few hundred bucks for one. That was, if we could salvage it.

Even empty and with most of its foam and wood chipped away, the spa weighed a ton. But we’d made it light enough that we were finally able to slide it from one side of the patio to the other, where it would be out of the way while we built the new pergola. Our next step was a trip to Home Depot to buy lumber.

Selecting the 54 pieces of lumber — 2x4 and 2x6 boards in the 8- to 20-foot range — took several hours, and gave the guys in the tool rental department who helped us load it onto one of their flatbed trucks conniption fits. “Was this pick-a-number?” one of them mocked as he stacked the longest boards over the cab of the truck. It certainly looked that way, as we had five or six specimens of every board that was for sale in the lumber department. But there was nothing random in our selections. While Glenn worked with the clerks to get the rental truck loaded, Roni raced across the street to Lowe’s and picked out a crape myrtle tree we had selected to plant on the patio. With the truck loaded, Glenn swung by and we hoisted the tree into the bed like a precision military operation. It looked ridiculous.

“Are you sure this will fit under the freeway overpass?” Roni asked upon seeing the 20-foot boards projecting above the cab. Until she’d said that, there was no reason to believe it wouldn’t. Nevertheless, Glenn sweated a bit when he navigated the truck beneath the Brentwood Bypass on Lone Tree Way, even though there was room to spare. We got the truck home safely and with Ben’s help unloaded it and had it back to the rental counter within the allotted 75 minutes.

The morning of Wednesday, Oct. 6, Roni and Ben got busy painting boards while Glenn hacked apart the remaining gazebo. He removed one of the support posts and the weight of the wisteria brought the entire structure down in a heap on the patio. It took the rest of the day to remove the wood and untangle the vines, which we did our best to lay off to one side near Summer’s Garden. Our goal was to save the plant as much as possible, although we pruned off a lot of its branches just trying to figure out which parts went where.

Over the next five days we assembled the 2x6 boards for the frame, then used the 2x4s to form the rungs of the roof. As it took shape, we realized how massive a structure we had designed. Glenn nicknamed it “BAP” — Big-Ass Pergola — after having to lift the heavy 20-foot 2x6 beams into place with Ben’s and Roni’s assistance. We joked that it was like a barn-raising event in the Facebook game “Farmville.” Unlike the famous no-saw pergola that we built on the adjacent patio five years ago, there was plenty of sawing involved in this project. Everything was built at odd angles, and each of the support beams and top stringers had to be trimmed to fit. Glenn used the reciprocating saw for all of it, which made the job easier in some ways and more difficult in others; getting the perfect cut was nearly impossible.

By Tuesday, Oct. 12, the pergola was close to finished. In the hours before Glenn returned to work and vacation ended, we planted the crape myrtle tree in a barrel and reattached the wisteria to one of the 8-foot support posts. We could have used a 14-foot post to handle the lengthy vines; wisteria takes over everything. The plant gave us instant shade, and we are hopeful that once it gets comfortable in its new home, next year it will completely cover the pergola’s available roof space.

* * * * *

With the pergola project taking up most of our time, the two weeks of vacation seemed to fly by. In previous years we used these weeks to take long road trips. But with money still tight and most of what he had available this year tied up in paint, wood and screws, anything more than day trips was out of the question. That didn’t mean we couldn’t find ways to have fun.

On Oct. 3, Glenn and Ben got together with their brother/uncle Sean for a 7-mile hike on an abandoned railroad line between Hood and Freeport along the Sacramento River. It was something Glenn had wanted to do for a while, but knowing nothing about the line or its accessibility, the idea had languished until now.

We took two cars for the 50-mile drive to reach the trailhead. We left Sean’s car parked at Cliff’s Marina in Freeport, then drove back in Glenn’s car to Hood, where we parked off the side of Hood-Franklin Road, about the point where the rails began. The tracks were once owned by Southern Pacific and used as a branch line to haul produce from the area’s pear and asparagus farms. The line used to run as far south as Isleton, but the tracks south of Hood had long ago been removed. The rails to the north into Sacramento remain, but they’ve been paved over in many spots and are unusable for rail service. Trains haven’t run over the line since the late 1970s.

Crossing over Hood-Franklin Road, we immediately encountered weeds taller than we were. Not only had the line not been used in more than 30 years, it hadn’t been maintained either. Walking on the roadbed was difficult because of the weeds, many of which were filled with stickers. They scraped our arms and became embedded in our clothing. We had to stop every few hundred feet to remove thorns from our shoes and socks. If the entire 7 miles of the line were like this, it was going to be a long day.

Fortunately, the tracks eventually left the weed-infested fields and headed into oak groves that were both easier to walk and provided shade. The line ran along farms on the west side and a hyacinth-covered Delta slough to the east. Ducks, herons and red-tailed hawks were plentiful, using the undisturbed land to make their homes. So much beauty in an area mostly forgotten by people.

We were just starting to get into the walk when less than two miles in we encountered a fence strung across the tracks, one end jutting out into a pasture and the other ending abruptly in a thicket of blackberry brambles. The rails are not privately owned, but much of the property surrounding them is. We feared this would be the end of our journey and we contemplated turning back. We wondered if the fence was an attempt to keep out trespassers, but as we surveyed the area it became more clear that it was meant to keep in cattle. Cows grazed on field grass a bit to our west. And since there were no warning signs and no angry rancher pointing a shotgun at us, we found a low spot in the fence and made our way over it. It turned out to be the only barrier we encountered on the entire walk. We were soon glad we’d made the decision to go forward.

Sean is a seasoned hiker, having taken many weekend walks along challenging mountainous terrain. Glenn worried that the rail walk was a bit ambitious for himself; most walks he has taken recently have been less than 2 miles, and few have been through rocky, weed-infested terrain. We weren’t even sure how to estimate how far we had traveled until Sean discovered metal tags with milepost markers stamped on them affixed to some of the ties. The first one we took note of was MP 14.2, but that might have already been a couple of miles in. Even though we covered the distance quickly, each milepost marker was a reminder of how far we still had to go. By the fourth mile we were starting to feel it in our leg muscles.

We lucked out with the weather, which was in the comfortable 70s, down considerably from the triple-digit heat we’d had a few days earlier. We love our Indian summers here in Delta country. Sean and Ben walked faster than Glenn, who was prone to stop every few yards for another photo op. That meant they did a lot of waiting while Glenn caught up, and consequently they were better rested after their breaks whereas Glenn kept puffing along. The condition of the railroad ran the gamut from rusted but in good repair to stretches of kinked track that jogged up and down like a roller coaster. Some sections of the levee-top roadbed had washed out over the years, leaving large gaps under the rails that maintenance crews had repaired by wedging a few ties underneath.

Roni had packed lunches for us that Ben carried in his backpack along with a bag of trail mix and a woefully inadequate supply of water bottles. We took a lunch break about five miles in, beneath the shade of several large oak trees. We’d managed to collect several large feathers along the way that Glenn kept safe inside his camera bag. Ben, who normally shies away from photography related activities, was shooting up a storm with his own digital camera. Most of the images he posted to his Facebook page when we got home.

About a mile from the end of the walk we came upon a railroad trestle that spanned one of the waterways. The bridge looked pretty solid, so we did our best “Stand By Me” impersonation and walked across the ties to the opposite end, of course making the obligatory remarks about trains bearing down on us when we were at mid-span. Ben was way ahead of us, as usual, so by the time Glenn and Sean reached the opposite bank, Ben had discovered a new place to explore — a semi-hidden path that led to a broken bridge over the slough. The bridge, originally made from heavy timbers, appeared to have been used by vehicles long ago. Part of it had either washed away or burned down, so now there were just a few boards left to provide foot access from one bank to the other. Ben made his way over first and was checking out a tire swing he found on the other shore while Glenn and Sean lingered at the bridge’s center. In either direction and as far as the eye could see, the slough was a solid mass of blooming water hyacinth. It resembled a fuzzy green carpet like one of those ugly shag rugs from the 1960s. If someone were to get lost under there they might never be found.

The last mile of the walk took us into Freeport and past horse ranches on either side of the tracks. We knew we’d reached the end of the line when we enountered the large metal storage container that had been placed on the rails to keep out vehicles. We crossed Highway 160 into the Cliff’s Marina parking lot and got on our way. The drive back to pick up Glenn’s car in Hood seemed much longer than it had earlier in the day, probably because we were all exhausted. It was hard to imagine that a few hours earlier we had covered the entire distance on foot.

* * * * *

Glenn received welcome news this month when his doctor told him that he can stop taking monthly blood tests to check for the presence of coccidioidomycosis. Recent tests have come back negative for presence of the disease, and it has been more than a month since Glenn last took his medicine. Now he will only have to go in for a blood test at the end of December, and that hopefully will bring a close to what has been a long medical odyssey.

Ben took the PSAT test last week, giving him a preview of what he will face should he take the SAT next fall. He wasn’t excited about giving up part of a school day to fill in bubbles on the test sheet, but it did get him out of his regular classes, which he didn’t seem to mind.

Roni attended the second of her Romance Writers of America group meetings Oct. 2 in Antioch where she listened to published author Karen Tabke talk about the ins and outs of the book publishing industry. Roni has a goal to write at least 2,500 words of a fiction-related project by the end of the month. This seems a reasonable goal, but things have suddenly been busy with her work and she has found it difficult to find writing time.

We’ll all be searching for writing time in November when we take part in the annual National Novel Writing Month event. This will be the 10th year for Roni and Glenn. Ben hasn’t said yet whether he plans to attempt the 50,000 words in 30 days goal. NaNoWriMo’s slogan has long been “No plot? No problem,” which this year seems most fitting as we have yet to settle on our subjects. It’s funny how things always seem to work themselves out before November begins.

That’s it for this month. Have an enjoyable Halloween, and we’ll give a shout out to the San Francisco Giants as they attempt to play their way into the World Series. Go team!

Glenn, Roni and Ben

This page was last updated on Saturday, November 27, 2010 at 19:57 hrs.

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